Forbidden! The Ethics of Listening to Problematic Artists


In a time rife with cancel culture, it feels as if it is hard to find an artist or celebrity who is genuinely a good person. When looking at artists and the music they create, it can be hard to decide whether you should allow yourself to listen to them if they have done something problematic.

Some may argue that cancel culture is too harsh, with artists being blacklisted for doing hardly severe offences, like being a homewrecker or drug use. These acts perhaps would not have been criticised if they had been exposed decades earlier. However, in some cases, cancel culture doesn’t seem harsh enough. Chris Brown is still very popular despite being a known abuser; he had almost 50 million listeners on Spotify last year. The late Michael Jackson, faced with allegations of child sexual abuse which to many have plagued his legacy, still has songs played on the radio.

Can the art and the artist truly be separated? Maybe by listening only to a few songs but not outwardly supporting them, but some artists are so problematic that it’s hard to separate them from their work. It is a hard argument as the issue might need a case-by-case approach depending on the artist and what they have been cancelled for. There are a few factors to take into account when deciding if it’s okay to listen to problematic artists.

  1. Issue – the first thing to look at it is what causes the artist to be seen as problematic. Whether this issue is severe enough to warrant yourself not to listen to them ever again is up to you. Issues like affairs, stupid pranks or wearing real fur are perhaps a little more lighthearted than racism and abuse so are maybe more excusable. It’s understandable if you stopped listening to Kanye West as a result of his antisemitic comments but to blacklist Ariana Grande for having an affair seems a little harsh.
  2. Context – context and time passing are important to factor in too. Things people have said may have been taken out of context or the issue may have been deemed more acceptable when it originally happened but has gotten progressively less acceptable as time has passed, or even the opposite. Sinead O’Connor was blacklisted in 1992 for ripping up a picture of the Pope on ‘Saturday Night Live’ but when she died in 2023 was heralded a hero. While Michael Jackson had some allegations against him prior to his death, the ‘Leaving Neverland’ documentary brought claims to light with more in-depth evidence in 2019 and he began to properly be seen as problematic posthumously.
  3. Apologies – the third factor depends on whether you believe apologies by the artist mean anything. Artists ignoring the issue may seem rude, however confrontation of the issue and apologising for it doesn’t always mean anything – there is something to be said for timing and sincerity. If the apology has come only because the artist has been cancelled, it would seem less genuine and more purposeful to make people change their opinion. YouTuber Colleen Ballinger went viral last year for her sarcastic ukulele song apology which was incredibly insincere and led to people hating her more! The idea of changing and growing and giving a genuine apology is ideal but rare. In 2017, British rap superstar Stormzy apologised for posting homophobic tweets in the past, explaining how he has grown and learnt from it and has not repeated this behaviour in a way which feels more genuine.
  4. Methods of listening – if you have decided that you will allow yourself to listen to the artist, you may have a specific opinion on how they should be listened to. It may depend on whether you are happy still giving money to the artist. Streaming gives money to the artists, with Spotify giving artists $0.003-$0.005 per stream. With physical copies of albums like CDs or vinyls, artists receive 10-20% of the retail price. However, buying physical copies second hand or already owning them gives the artist nothing for listening.

Overall, I think whether you listen to a problematic artist is up to you, but if you do listen I hope it is with the mindset of separating the art from the artist rather than standing by the artist in their unfavourable actions. Listening to one random hit or a couple of songs may not hurt your morals too much and is understandable, however being a full-blown fan and still listening to the same extent may be a bit questionable.


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